Getting Up-Close and Personal with Influencers: The Promises and Pitfalls of Intimate Netnography
Since the rise of the “reflexive turn” in qualitative research, it has been widely acknowledged that the reign of the insider-outsider model of inquiry is over (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Mann 2016). The result of this assertion is that researchers and cultural informants are today recognised as inseparable. The netnographer has considerable agency to colour the interaction with his/her cultural informants and, as a consequence, the acquisition of non-neutral data and knowledge is impossible (Demirdirek, 2010). In this chapter we posit that studying digital influencers, or to use the more benign term, content creators, as we generally do, via netnography, produces such an intensified and heightened entwinement of researcher and subject that its exceptionality is worthy of discussion.
We will draw upon our experience of conducting netnographic research with said individuals (Kozinets et al, 2017; Ashman et al, 2018), engagement with the ever-growing body of nethnographic research (e.g. Bjork & Kauppinen-Raisanen, 2012; Weijo et al, 2014; Martensen et al, 2018) and the fecund theoretically grounded literature of traditional qualitative research. In the midst of conducting a netnography on any particular influencers micro-community with global span, we were always mindful to follow the commonplace logic that in order for our findings to be valuable and insightful, establishing a rapport with them at the beginning of the research process is crucial (Keegan, 2009). To achieve this, it was obviously important to be personally and emotionally engaged in the research process and to mirror their behaviour.
In this respect, the second author led the way. Her emotional engagement allows her to mirror behaviour when out in the field, whether attending events, viewing online content or interacting with them in person, virtually or in writing. This was instinctual for her, since she shares many of the same interests, behaviours and characteristics as the study group. She is natural predisposed to intently follow their endeavour and has been doing so for years. She voluntarily immerses herself daily in their cultural world by viewing hour upon hour of footage on YouTube and the like. But such immersion can also create problems of its own. As Gilbert (2001, 13) points out while discussing the general emotionality of qualitative research: “an in-depth and long-term contact with the phenomenon, and the evolving emotional environment of the researchers own social world may result in a lack of clarity or ‘fuzziness’ in boundaries”.
In this chapter we discuss how we continually negotiated and renegotiated these boundaries each time we stepped into the dynamic datastream of our netnographic projects. We begin by more deeply exploring why intimacy between content creators and researchers is so pronounced. We show as an ongoing part of the research process, how we sought to balance the promises and pitfalls of being too deeply imbedded in or too far removed from the lives of the influencers that we studied.
COSYING UP TO CONTENT CREATORS
The digital influencers or content creators that we have studied, have for the most part accumulated and monetised a relatively large online following by visually and textually narrating their personal lives and lifestyles across an integrated array of social media sites. They are a broad church of competing bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers, tweeters, and TikTokers commissioned by advertisers on the promise that in addition to creating a persistent stream of output, they will pitch sponsored content at those who follow them. The winsome nature of their “online traces” (Kozinets, 2020, 18), lies in the curated manner in which they package and distribute the intimate minutiae of their everyday lives. Remarkably, they have managed to make real what Balick (2018,73) describes as the “The marketers desire to make consuming objects out of socialising subjects”. In doing so, they create self-brands that commodify privacy and normalise extreme candour (Abidin, 2017). All might, though, not be what it seems. As Burkart (2010,23) astutely notes, “when the private self goes public, however, the character of authentic self-disclosure begins to shift to a dramatized, strategic self-presentation and theatrical self-expression”.
To study them is to follow them. To follow them is to expose oneself to their intimate wiles and styles. Their entire success, bound up in the novel experience of closeness they offer, can be understood as a triumph of authenticity masquerading as “mediated intimacy” (Chambers, 2013; Hart, 2018; Farci et al, 2017). Of course, no form of intimacy can be said to be truly unmediated. Even a legacy media, like that created by the postal system, is well-recognised as creating a new form of sociality. It allowed, for example, the practice of writing love letters - brimful of romantic and erotic intent - to flourish (Ahearn, 2001). While, to some extent, it is true that all new media, as Fornas et al (2002, p. 30) presciently indicate “offered entrances to imagined spaces or Virtual realities’, opening up symbolic worlds for transgressive experiences”, online mediated intimacy, especially that espoused by influencers, is undoubtedly a peculiar entity. Below we tease apart two of its more obvious incarnations: the adoption of a casual and playful manner of communication and displaying high levels of disclosure.